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Training Marine Mammals

About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about training marine mammals. The answers come from our dedicated and passionate marine mammal trainers. If you have a question about training marine mammals that’s not addressed in this page or the references below, please feel free to email our librarian.

Training Marine Mammals

Questions & Answers

Why do you train marine mammals? 

Marine mammals at Vancouver Aquarium require a great deal of specialized care—this is especially true for belugas and dolphins that are wholly aquatic. Training is a way for us to communicate with them and to build a trusting relationship. Training allows our professional team to convey simple messages that result in voluntary and cooperative body examinations, the taking of blood, body temperature, ultrasound, dental checks and eye exams. Our interactions are customized for each animal and vary for health care, exercise, socialization, science, learning, education and play. It also enables scientists to conduct vital research, such as the echolocation (sound) study now underway to help us understand how Pacific white-sided dolphins navigate underwater using sound and why they continue to get entangled in fishing nets. 

How do you get a whale to do what you want?

Training is done by "classical conditioning." A bridge stimulus, such as a whistle, is an immediate feedback to let the whale know the behaviour is correct. The whistle is paired with a reinforcer, which is anything that increases the frequency of the behaviour - so it's something that the whale enjoys, whether it's food, a rub-down, ice cubes or being sprayed with the hose (this is like a massage for the whales). The whistle becomes associated with the reinforcement and the animal chooses to do the behaviour in order to obtain this reinforcement. So, the behaviour is learned!

Before whales get trained for behaviours, they are taught to follow a target (either the hand of a trainer or a target pole which acts as an extension of the arm) which acts as a focal point. It helps to direct the whale to a position or in a direction. In the beginning, the trainer would touch the target to the whale. The trainers blow the whistle and reinforce the animal. This is repeated several times and could take several days to get the whale to understand that the trainer is looking for them to touch the target. Next, the target is positioned a few inches away from the whale and the trainers wait for the whale to touch the target. The whale knows that when they touch the target they get reinforced, so they move toward the target. After several successful repetitions, the target is moved further and further away until the whale is following the target. Now the target can be used to lead the whale through small steps of a behaviour.

Why use a whistle? Why not just shout to the whales to tell them they did a good job?

It is important to be consistent when training any animal with reinforcement. The whistle, because of its high frequency and consistent sound is an easier way to get the message across to the animals and it can also be heard underwater!

How do we know what is reinforcing to a whale?

Since the marine mammals cannot tell us what they like and don't like, the trainers look carefully at the frequency of their behaviour after they apply a reinforcer. If the frequency goes down, the trainers will assume that the animal didn't like the reinforcement very much, so they try different reinforcers to find something that increases the frequency of the behaviour.

What if a whale refuses to do a behaviour or does it wrong?

The trainer doesn't want to draw attention to an incorrectly performed behaviour, so he or she does nothing. This three or four second pause acts like a "time out," referred to as the "least reinforcing stimulus". Whether a whale chooses to do a behaviour depends upon its energy levels on that particular day, which makes the shows unique. The shows are run on the basis that whatever happens will happen and the total health care of the animal is the main objective and so the whales are never made to do behaviours. When you do see the animals and trainers working together, you are seeing the relationship they have with each other; the animals are choosing to interact with their trainers and do different behaviours that they are being asked for!

How do you maintain a whale's interest?

The trainers at the Aquarium use environmental enrichment to mentally stimulate the whales and dolphin. This is done by showing them new objects such as a television monitor, a mirror or any interesting or odd-shaped item. Whales are intelligent creatures, and it is important to challenge them through teaching them new behaviours and trying new things.

What are some of the high energy behaviours of the whales/dolphin?

High energy behaviours may include breaches (leaping out of the water), dolphin jumps and tail lobbing (forcefully swiping their tail across the surface of the water which causes a huge spray to be sent).

How long does it take to train a marine mammal?

There is no set time. It may take months or even years to train a marine mammal for a single behaviour. It requires patience since the training has to take place in gradual baby steps called approximations. It takes many hours of relationship building prior to training before the animal may respond to the trainer.

Is there danger involved in training whales?

There is always the possibility of danger when working with animals, however if the trust between trainer and animal is solid the potential of injury can be reduced. Trainers regularly dive safely in the beluga habitat to clean the area.

Can whales recognize individual trainers?

The whales do recognize individual trainers. If a trainer happens to be in the underwater viewing area, they will come by the window to see what's going on.

What equipment do trainers use to train the marine mammals?

While training above the water they wear waterproof clothing and rain boots (although depending on the season and time of year they will wear a variety of different gear to keep themselves dry and warm, and to keep from slipping on submerged surfaces.  They also always have their whistles around their necks. A target pole, which acts as an extension of the trainer's arm, may be used for the more high-energy behaviours or behaviours that require the animal to be well out of arm’s reach. When behaviours progress in development, trainers will switch out the target pole for ice cubes that can also serve as a target when tossed at the water; they create the ripples on the water which serves as a water target for the animals to swim to/jump out of the water at.  Trainers may also use enrichment devices or toys during training sessions to get the animals used to new toys or perhaps even to use the toys in new behaviours in the future.

How are the seals, sea lions and sea otters trained?

The Steller sea lions and harbour seals are primarily trained for husbandry (healthcare) behaviours, but are also trained to voluntarily participate in research. The Steller sea lions are trained to lie still while researchers take measurements of their bodies, to swim on a swimmill to check their energy levels, or to wear a special camera "backpack" to record the activities of trained Steller sea lions as they swim through the ocean beside a research vessel.  Through this work, the Aquarium in partnership with the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium is hoping to learn more about the declining population of wild Steller sea lions.

How long are training sessions?

Training sessions vary in length from a few minutes to thirty minutes, depending on the behaviour and how interested the marine mammals seem to be in the training session. The sessions may be very short even though an animal is attentive, if the goal of the session is achieved.  Trainers always want to end training sessions on a positive note!


For more information, contact our librarian:

Phone: 604-659-3404
Email: library@ocean.org

Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.


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Did You Know?

Did You Know?

Up to 40 per cent of a beluga’s body is blubber.
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